Some of today’s most successful companies—Airbnb, Nike—have CEOs who are also designers. And leading organizations across industries, like Apple, 3M, and Pepsi, have highly influential Chief Design Officers at the helm. Making design a priority isn’t just about meeting the glossy expectations of today’s consumers—it’s is a key differentiator that drives organizations to outperform the market. But you don’t have to earn a degree in fine arts to be creative, and while the designer CEO or CDO may set the agenda, design-friendly behaviors need to flourish at every level of the organization.
Here are the top 5 approaches that we believe will have the biggest impact:
1. Cultivate curiosity
Human-centered designers share one quality—they like to ask questions, lots of them. Adopting a posture of humility and curiosity is how you develop empathy for your customer’s needs and desires, and when you’re in constant contact with the people you’re designing for, it creates a productive feedback loop. But that can’t always be a one-to-one conversation. In order to scale curiosity you need to design algorithms that collect and analyze data in a rigorous and human-centered way.
2. Experiment early and often
Designers never stop at one sketch. Likewise in business, being able to “sketch” or test the viability and desirability of several ideas at once is a critical skill. We have a tool called Creative Difference that organizations can use to test the effectiveness and creative capacity of their teams. Now that we have collected and analyzed quite a bit of data, what we’ve found is that teams that explore and iterate five or more solutions at once produce 50 percent more successful launches. Experimenting like a designer means valuing divergent thinking as much as convergent thinking.
3. Collaborate across silos
Designers don’t subscribe to the myth of the lone genius. Alighting upon breakthrough ideas requires collaboration across disciplines. And today, the challenge goes even further than getting internal departments to talk to one another. To predict the disruptive solutions of the future, one must now go outside the building and cross the boundaries of industry. That’s the only way organizations can avoid making a common mistake—defining the competition too narrowly. (Who would have thought, for example, that a search engine like Google would end up becoming the biggest competitor for the media industry over advertising dollars.) For CEO’s, this might mean looking for interesting partnerships or investments outside of the company’s core business. It might also mean bringing talented people into the organization from outside the sector. A lot happens across the boundaries of silos, so adopt a practice of gathering knowledge from unexpected places.
4. Spread ideas like a virus
Developing a storytelling practice isn’t typically seen as part of the designer’s toolbox, but it’s an essential skill. The ideas you generate will die on Post-It notes if they don’t have an animating force. Tell a great story, activate networks who can help you build your idea, and do anything you can to make the idea contagious within the organization. Don’t let the idea get tossed back and forth between teams—that’s a quick way to kill it. If the idea started with a leader who has low visibility, the trick is to quickly assign it to a product owner who can spark a movement. The earlier you have an owner who sees it as their job to generate excitement and momentum around the idea, the better chance it has at survival. Data collected from our Creative Difference work has shown that leaders and product owners who foster clear purpose and consistent intent have 20 percent more successful launches.
5. Go big and go fast for the win
Design-driven organizations understand that more is more. If you start with a surplus of ideas, then you can sacrifice a few darlings along the way and not be sunk by it. Companies like IKEA have a firehose of new products every year; it’s become habitual for them to produce at that rate. And with 30 percent of revenue coming from new products, the company doesn’t have time to be too precious. Such abundance requires all of the above qualities to create a sprint-like design process that builds early prototypes, garners evidence and feedback from the marketplace, and responds quickly—all mid-stride.
One last note: Lists of important qualities have limited value if they’re seen as mandates plunked down from on high by a corporate crane. A design-led culture requires skillful and steady cultivation. One way creative leaders can start is to fancy themselves gardeners. In that role, they must seed a common purpose that can take root across the organization. Once that purpose is planted, smart, emergent ideas will sprout up everywhere, across the company’s halls. Everyone must understand why the company exists, and that reason has to go beyond making money. It has to be about designing something extraordinary—something that people dearly want.